The Alaska Marine Highway System should start from the beginning, realize the success it had in the early years and avoid its past mistakes.
It was heartening to learn this week of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s approach to the ferry system of late, recognizing it as a needed transportation mode for Southeast Alaska.
Dunleavy dramatically cut state funding for the system when he entered the governor’s office in 2019.
He has since formed the AMHS Reshaping Work Group, of which Sitka Sen. Bert Stedman is a participant. Stedman, who grew up with the ferry system, was an excellent choice for the group. He knows the system and the state budgets from years of experience.
The goal, according to Dunleavy, is to “stabilize the system, modernize the system and sustain the system…”
The Dunleavy administration and Legislature are working toward a one-time, 18-month budget for AMHS, beginning on July 1, and the AMHS group has proposed forward funding the ferry system two or more years in advance to give the system maneuverability.
Dunleavy and Stedman mentioned that other considerations are adding crew quarters to one of the new Alaska class ferries and adding a Lynn Canal ferry terminal to shorten the sailing time between Juneau and Haines. A replacement ferry for the Tustumena, which has served Southwest Alaska since the early 1960s, also is being discussed.
These types of changes would result in schedules being available farther in advance, increased revenue, reduced expenses, and improved maintenance schedules at Ketchikan Shipyard, which is owned by the state.
Perhaps the state could realize funding for a large ship like the Tustumena, which like the mainline ferries are dated and in need of replacement, through the bonus infrastructure package being discussed in Congress and supported by the Biden administration for this year.
Essentially, a new mainline ferry is what the system has needed for a couple decades.
The ferry system started out in the Southeast with the Malaspina in the early 1960s. The Mal cruised between the region’s communities and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. This allowed Southeastererns to commute around the region and leave and enter the state with their motor vehicles and connect to the Lower 48 road system via British Columbia.
A major benefit of that situation turned out to be that while Alaskans departed for the south, road-travelers in the Lower 48 started driving north. They filled the ferries.
It was a significant revenue source for the ferry system and the state, and, it brought tourists into the towns along the ferry’s route.
These are the tourists that Alaska should never take for granted again.
The cruise ship industry started bringing visitors into Southeast in the 1970s. The industry grew to about 1.2 million visitors during the 2019 season. 2020 saw the industry’s activity in Alaska come to a standstill.
Its challenges extend into 2021 because of its dependence on British Columbia, Canada and Washington state as starting points. Both remain locked down as a result of the 2020 pandemic.
So, while Alaska might be able to establish safe procedures with the cruise industry to operate, Canada and Washington state would have to be willing, too. To date, they are not.
With that door temporarily closed, the state intends to market for independent travelers, some of whom would come and go by air. But others via ferry.
This shouldn’t be a one-season effort. If this marketing could be done annually, Southeast Alaska might develop a significant independent travel component to its visitor season. Then, when pandemics or other challenges occur, Alaska and its Southeast communities still would have some semblance of a tourism season.
The marketing might reinvigorate the idea in the Lower 48 of driving to and from Alaska. If so, then the ferry system would need a dependable ship on a predictable schedule — similar to what the Malaspina did in the beginning.